Trust in Transparency: 5 Questions With SC Johnson CEO Fisk Johnson

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SC Johnson - Everything is Chemistry - transparency

Consumer expectations of transparency are high for brands today, and SC Johnson wants to stay ahead of the game, where it already has been for many years.

That’s no small feat for a company whose products help people clean, freshen and preserve their households and their possessions. Household chemicals have become suspect to many consumers as they scour store shelves and the web for CPG products that seem simple, pure and “natural” and whose fabrication entails the least environmental impact possible.

Confusion and misconceptions abound while trust is at an all-time low, which is why SC Johnson is taking the lead on transparency.

SC Johnson — brand transparency

For more than a decade, SC Johnson has proactively addressed consumers’ questions with as much openness as possible about the ingredients in its popular brands that include Windex, Glade, Drano, Ziploc, Shout, Scrubbing Bubbles, Mrs. Meyer’s and Pledge, in its Greenlist program.

Furthermore, the Racine, Wis.-based, family-owned company has banned more than 200 unique raw materials (in roughly 90 material categories) and more than 2,400 fragrance materials—even though some competitors use these ingredients, and even though they meet legal and regulatory requirements.

SC Johnson CEO Fisk Johnson

“We’re in a period of time where trust is at an all-time low in business and an all-time low in terms of media and government and lots of other institutions, so trust in our brands and our company is extremely important for us,” SC Johnson Chairman and CEO Fisk Johnson told brandchannel. “We view transparency as one important way we continue to build and maintain trust in our company and brands.”

To that end, SC Johnson is open about the scientific criteria for its Greenlist selection program, which sets standards for how it evaluates ingredients for human health and environmental safety.

The 132-year-old company, long known popularly as “Johnson Wax,” recently updated its tagline, “A Family Company,” to reflect its corporate sustainability commitment and purpose-driven mission. Its new tagline, “A Family Company at Work for a Better World,” is highlighted in videos and other consumer outreach.

Fisk Johnson shared more about building brand trust with consumers in a Q&A:

How is SC Johnson becoming more transparent to advance the company’s brands and reputation with consumers?

We believe that if we lay everything out there for the scrutiny of the world and make it clear we have nothing to hide, that builds trust in our brands. We’ve been on a journey of transparency, and it’s something that’s dated back more than 10 years. Ultimately, it has led to our being really transparent about all the ingredients in our products.

The next big phase is being transparent about how to rate all our ingredients from an environmental standpoint. The next step is how we rate individual chemicals according to the [Greenlist] criteria that we laid out in our sustainability report. We’re putting it out there for the scrutiny of the world, ultimately to maintain and build trust in our company and our brands.

What’s the challenge inherent in being transparent about chemicals, which in the minds of some consumers are inherently untrustworthy, no matter what?

Every product is based on chemicals because everything is a chemical. There is an incredible amount of misperceptions and myths in the marketplace about what’s bad or good, about what chemicals are bad, and even myths about chemicals that people think are good but aren’t. One of the great myths is that “natural” is always better, and that’s absolutely not true. Some of the most toxic and carcinogenic things in the world are natural and come from nature.

Does it make things more difficult that there’s no regulation of the terms “natural” or “all-natural”?

Yes, unfortunately, a lot of greenwashing goes on in the marketplace about “natural” being better, when it’s not necessarily better. We’re working on trying to clear up some of this confusion, and we think just being transparent about what we do and how we rate things is one way to deal with the issue.

For example, a recent piece of our “Family Company” campaign is taking a banana and detailing all the chemicals in it. We got a very positive response from it so far. It’s meant to be a curiosity piece about how chemicals pervade everything, including what you eat every day. People would be surprised to learn about some of the chemicals they eat from nature every day. Some of the chemicals in bananas are on the California Prop 65 list [of potentially harmful substances in food].

What are some ways the “natural” label is being misapplied?

A lot of companies will put “natural” on something, and it may be derived from natural materials, but by the time you process it, it may look different than what it’s sourced from. Also, naturally-derived material isn’t necessarily better for the environment. For example, a lot of cleaning materials are derived from palm oil, which is one of the biggest sources of deforestation in the world today.

So in many cases, making environmental choices is a matter of picking your poison—do you want less global warming or a better tox profile? There are plenty of synthetic things that are absolutely fine from a tox profile. The tox profile of Windex is not that dissimilar from water, but people perceive Windex as a chemical bad thing.

I’d love more companies who have an interest to join us and get on this train. The more our industry can recoup trust in our products and our business, the better it will be for everyone.

How are you responding to the millennial consumers, in particular, who are demanding more accountability and transparency from brands?

They’re much more interested in values, and environmental standards and social responsibility. The younger generation wants to buy products from a company that shares their values and that they can trust. From SC Johnson’s standpoint, that’s a good thing, because we have a long legacy of doing what we believe is right in social and environmental responsibility. And as a family company, we’re not beholden to Wall Street and the next quarter’s earnings. We can do what’s right for the long term of our businesses, consumers and our communities.

Below, find out how SC Johnson and Conservation International partnered on ‘Under the Canopy’ to help the Amazon rainforests:


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